Professional and Personal Biography:

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

(Written in 2000)


How I Became a Teacher

Teaching Methods

What Makes a Good Teacher  



How I Became a Teacher

How does one find shadows of one’s past in the present? Is it as easy as merely outlining one’s life and looking there for clues that, consciously or not, guide present behavior? Perhaps; but certainly not all that has happened in the past is of equal importance to the present.  Then again, what might seem trivial at first works its way over the years to become an indelible part of one’s personal and professional life. I will look back at my own life and see if I can find what it was that has stayed with me over the years. More important, what part of my past is reflected in how I have become as a teacher? 

The first part is easy enough: I was born in California in 1953, and my brother 15 months later. Our mother packed us up shortly after and left California for the welcome anonymity of Portland, Oregon. There my mother met her first husband, a worthless and violent fellow whom my mother would divorce ten years later. He was a gambler by addiction and a bartender by trade. (It seems now high irony that though I came to despise him, I myself would tend bar for many years. Perhaps where he is now he is laughing.) 

Life became intolerable soon enough, and my only refuge was into the world of books. By the time I was in the eighth grade, we had left him though we stayed in Portland. Now began a time of poverty as the three of us worked to pay off a series of gambling debts that was the only patrimony left to us. It was at times a struggle to get enough to eat and to get proper clothing for school. Winters were hard when there was no money for heating oil, and the three of us would share the same bed to keep warm. I do not remember much about high school, as I was concerned with matters other than studying. When I was eighteen I enlisted in the Air Force, not so much from patriotism as from a desire to escape poverty. 

During my time in the service, I became reacquainted with books, and it was then that I knew that I would go to college. I had no idea what I would study, but that seemed not a pressing issue at the time. I also learned other things while in the military: friendships are usually fleeting; power is usually corrupting; security is usually smothering. I was glad when my time was up, and I returned to Portland for college. 

But what was I to study? Business had no attraction, then or now. Science? No, I was not the type to spend years in some laboratory working with test tubes and Petri dishes. It was about this time that I somehow acquired a biography of Alexander the Great, and I read it. What an adventure this young Macedonian’s life had been! His story created in me a great hunger to find out as much as I could about the Ancient World. It was clear that I had found my course of study in college. Most of my friends were aghast. “History?” they said. “What are you going to do with that?” What indeed! Many times since then I have remembered their words, words that they thought so worldly wise, so practical. Had I followed their counsel I would not have become a teacher. I would have never set foot on foreign soil. I would not be living in Argentina. (I would also not be writing this essay.) 

I gave little thought to what I would do when I had earned my degree. That day seemed far off; in the meantime, there was much to learn: not just History, but Literature, Philosophy, Languages. I took evening courses and summer courses, always taking more than a full class load; I joined book clubs and read constantly---a habit I had picked up while fleeing from the terror of my stepfather. (Perhaps I should thank him in some off-handed way.) I was not after a profession as I then understood it: I was going to college to get a classical education---the future would take care of itself. 

The future arrived in 1980. I walked out of the graduation ceremony and onto an airplane for four months of travel through Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Europe was fine; I enjoyed seeing all those ruins, temples and cathedrals that I had studied for so long. Once I hit Morocco, Turkey and Egypt, however, something clicked inside me: here was a rhythm of life that I had never experienced, had never even imagined. This so-called “Third World”  seemed much more alive and exciting than staid old Europe, Roman ruins notwithstanding. Clearly, a fascination for the less developed parts of the globe---they comprise, after all, most of the earth---became a part of me as much as ancient history had been. (The truth be told, I never again made plans to go back to Europe until the summer program at Valbonne.) 

I returned to Portland broke but anxious to get back to school and work toward a Masters in History. In reality, I began to plan another foray into the Third World. My chance came in October of 1983: Central America, politically speaking, was where it was happening. The Cold War had spread there from Cuba and guerilla movements were on the march in Nicaragua and Guatemala. President Reagan responded to this by supporting pro-American governments in the region and supplying them with military hardware and advisors and (sometimes covert) aid. I had been trained as a historian, and whatever one thought of the political issues involved, here was history itself that was being made. My choice was the obvious one. 

After four months of travel through Mexico and Central America, I returned to Portland. I brought with me a new addiction to add to those of books, history, and Third World travel: jungles---insect infested, hot and humid, snake ridden jungles, the more God-forsaken the better. There were times then and now when I thought that camping in a jungle beside some Mayan ruin was one version of heaven on earth. (My love of jungles has stayed with me; not nine months have passed since a month-long solo-backpacking trip to the wilds of Guatemala and Honduras---countries I know very well indeed. Usually every summer has found me in the rain forest, a pattern broken only by the demands of Valbonne and Michigan State.) 

I was back home in 1984, and returned to college yet again to get another degree in political science. Two years of studying and working (as a bartender!) and I was ready to return to the jungle and to what I came to know would one day be my home, Latin America. This time my journey there would be different: I sold all that I owned save for my beloved books and headed out on a ten-month hiking vacation (if a vacation it could be called) that led to two near shipwrecks, a kidnapping by communist guerrillas, attacks by vampire bats, two days spent wandering lost in the jungles of Panama, bouts of altitude sickness, dysentery and giardia, infestations of ticks and worms and fungi, and near death from lack of water. I looked for a lost city in the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, walked from Panama to Colombia, hiked the Inca Trail, and saw more ruins than perhaps any non-professional alive. 

After returning in 1987 to what was becoming a very strange land, the United States, I vowed that the next time I left it would be for good. (Except for two intervening years, I have kept that vow.) By the winter of 1989, I was living in Guatemala. One evening while drinking some beers with other travelers I told one of the many stories of ancient Rome that I had remembered from my years of study. A young lady seemed entranced, and she told me that I should become a teacher. I laughed, “No way will I ever become a teacher.” When my money ran out fate intervened: I came back one night to my room in Antigua, Guatemala, to find a telegram from a Mrs. Baker who owned a high school in Costa Rica. She needed a teacher of high school history and wondered if I was interested. I called her the next day. 

I spent two years at her school outside of San Jose. Never in my life had I been so fulfilled, so thoroughly excited over work. It was in Costa Rica that I came to know that being a teacher was not my job; being a teacher was what I was. There was no other thing in the world that I have ever wanted to do. It was as if all that had happened in my life was coming to a single point, and that point being in the classroom. 

More was to come. I was saved while in Costa Rica. I will not belabor the issue, but I will say that God called me in 1990. He showed me the kind of life I was living and the kind of life He wanted me to live. Both lives could not co-exist, one had to die. One died. Just as (no, more so…much more so) I would never consider any profession other than teaching, I would never consider any reality other than a life in Christ. There is really no going back to what I had been. What man, after seeing the light, would choose to return to the dark? 

I have lived and taught now almost nine years in Buenos Aires. Writing this essay has caused me to sit and reflect upon all that I have done in my life that has brought me to this place at this time. My step-father’s violence forced me to retreat into the safety of books; the poverty of my high school life led me to the military and gave me the ability to go to college; a book on a man, Alexander, now 2300 years dead, led me to History; History led me to Europe; Europe led me to the Third World; a desire to see more of the Third World led me to Latin America; Latin America led me to jungles and to teaching; jungles and teaching brought me to God; God brought me to Argentina; Argentina led me to the program in Michigan State; Michigan State has led me to…well, the cycle has not completed. Each of these is a brick that has gone into the building of Mike Austin, high school teacher. 

The edifice is not done, of course. Much has been done, but there is still much to do (and I must say that some of the structure is a bit rickety).  I ask myself this question: what will be added to this essay in five years? in ten? in twenty? What thing seemingly inconsequential now---a book, a telegram---will one day prove to be something around which my entire life revolves? No one can answer that question; and to be honest, I do not want to know. It will become plain enough one day, perhaps sooner than I think. On that day, I am sure, there will be surprises.

Teaching Methods

I  understood what “teaching methods” were when I began working at the Marian Baker School. That is, as I was preparing for my first class on the first day at my first school I realized that I did not have any! I had two college degrees and much experience in the world’s back roads, but not much else. I had never stood in front of a room full of adolescents as any sort of authority figure, and had never pretended (well, not many times anyway) to be particularly adept at imparting knowledge to anyone. 

During the few weeks after I was hired in Costa Rica before classes started I worked furiously to be ready for the first day of school. I poured over texts, planned lessons and designed a whole series of exams and tests and quizzes and classwork for my future charges. All this was undone and rendered moot when the principal walked into my class and reviewed my handiwork. A total professional, she merely asked how I was to implement my grand scheme. I thought, but had no answer. Tactfully and patiently, over the next hour she explained the rudiments of lesson plans, classroom management, assessment strategies and exam preparation.  When she left I was simply struck dumb by the responsibilities my new career as high school teacher would entail. I  began again to plan the first day of classes. 

It came soon enough. Standing in front  of a bunch of students with my hands in my pockets, I did my best imitation of a calm, experienced, professional. They saw through the sham immediately. My true introduction to “Mike Austin’s Teaching Methods” began there and then. 

It is not so much that I taught students social studies that first semester 13 years ago  as that they taught me how to teach. And what exactly was that? Well: never say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without thinking; students like it when they get their exams and quizzes back the next class period; respect is earned and not congenital; grades are mostly irrelevant to character building;  love freely given is freely returned; live what you teach; it is OK to goof off once in a while. 

There is more: never speak ill of your colleagues; always dress as professionally as you can afford; there is more to learning than what resides in texts; sloppy grammar reveals a sloppy mind; discipline works; sometimes more can be learned from staying in a forest than in a classroom. 

Eleven years after this introduction to teaching, I do indeed---at last!---have what could be called “My Teaching Methods”. They really fall into only a few categories: Discipline, High Expectations, Character Development, Admit Mistakes, Be What You Teach. 

Discipline: Be tough on the first day of classes and you will never have to be thus again. Any attempt to be “a nice guy” on that day will lead to disaster and failure. You will be thought a pushover. Lay down ‘the Law’---and do not vary from it---and you will have control of your class for the rest of the year. High Expectations: Let the students know from the first moment that they will be doing the most difficult work of their fledgling careers, that the work will be at college level. Stick to this; that is, force them to meet your expectations. They will not fail, and they will surprise even themselves. Character Development: I tell the students on that first day, that the most important thing in the world is how you treat the guy next to you. Next to this, grades are irrelevant. Learn this, and all will be well. Admit Mistakes: If you are wrong, you cannot hide it from your students. They are quick to see through any acting or cover-up. Keep their respect and tell them when you are wrong. They will love you the more. Be what You Teach: If you stress character, then do not lie, do not be unjust, do not get angry, do not do what you tell your students not to do. Always keep in mind that respect is earned. If you lose it, it can never return. 

That is it. I would in no way try to say that these methods are suitable for anyone else other than Mike Austin. They are personal and are as much a part of my teaching as my lesson plans. They are founded on one million errors, one million corrections, 48 years of living among my fellows and a ferocious desire to teach. 

I forgot one thing: Any teaching method works better if the teacher spends time in a church, a synagogue, a temple or a mosque. It is humbling to be reminded, and reminded often, that there are things in this world greater than ourselves.


What Makes a Good Teacher  

If only it were as easy as putting pen to paper and explaining the various steps to this worthy goal! The trouble is, that there is a part of teaching that is technique, and a part that is art. Any reasonable person possessed with drive and desire can learn the technique, but it seems that the art only comes to those who are born with it. Like concert violinists, the best teachers are born with the talent. 

So where does that leave me, especially after eleven years in the profession? That is, what have I learned in this time that would enable me to tell a good teacher from a mediocre one---to say nothing of the artist? In no particular order of importance: 

1. A good teacher does not lose sight of the reason he is a teacher. That reason is the students. You are there for them, not they for you. 

2. A good teacher knows when to listen. Sometimes students just need to talk, not to be lectured to. Lend your ear to them. 

3. A good teacher keeps up with the developments in his field. By this I do not mean education, but History or Math or English or Physics or Biology or Chemistry. Read widely in your discipline and use these new materials in your lesson plans. This way you will not be stale and you will not be bored or boring. 

4. A good teacher can ‘read’ his classroom. He will know when learning has shut down and so will change his ambitions accordingly. Sometimes it is OK just to take some class time to talk to your students about anything at all: Life, the Universe, Everything. 

5. A good teacher does not allow his own problems to follow him into the classroom. This is difficult to do. We need to always keep in mind that whatever trials we are going through in our lives, that we are older and have the equipment to handle the fouls that life throws us. Our students, no matter how bright, precocious or entertaining, do not.  Which leads to… 

6. A good teacher makes his classroom a place of peace. The world is full of things, some good, some not. Make the classroom as welcoming and peaceful as you can. Do not add more problems to the already harried existence many students lead. 

7. A good teacher controls his mouth. Another hard one. A very smart Carpenter said that “it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out of him.” Do not tell anyone, least of all your students, to shut up. Do not swear. Do not criticize one student in front of another. 

8. A good teacher can handle any problem in the class without resorting to threats. Life can be threatening enough. Do not make it more so. 

9. A good teacher carries out his promises. This should be clear and easy, but it is neither. It is saying not to lie to your students about anything. 

10. A good teacher shows an obvious interest in his subject. This keeps us interesting and even at times entertaining. A bored teacher should not be surprised to see bored students. 

There is more (there could always be more). These ten rules will no doubt be added to as I continue in my career. 

I wish that I could say that I read these in some book, or that some mentor laid them down for me. Alas, this was not the case. I learned these rules the hard way, by breaking them and struggling through the consequences. Life can be a teacher, and it has proven to be a much more competent one than I.


My Students

My entire teaching career has taken place overseas. Every student I have had has been the son or daughter of missionaries, ex-patriots, businessmen local and foreign, ambassadors or other teachers. At last count my present school had students from 42 nations. My recent class in International Politics had 17 students from 14 nations. 

And just what does this mean? That besides the usual adolescent worries and teenage rebellions, that most of my students also carry with them the stress and excitement of living in a foreign country. Sometimes a student will come into my class as part of his first foreign experience; with others the school is their fifth overseas school. Usually students speak at least two languages, three is common, and four is not unknown. 

For the teacher this situation presents a fascinating opportunity. Students bring into the class an astounding range of experiences and attitudes. I often find myself not so much teaching this and that, but simply listening as they engage in discussions both on and off the subject matter. 

This does not mean that they are immune to the tremendous strains of adolescence that we are all familiar with from students in the United States. They still must deal with schools and dress codes and boys and girls and parents and tests and papers and grades and friends and teachers and principals and books and curfews.  In short, they must face and struggle through what every student from every age and every nation has had to face and struggle through throughout history.   


They are not the enemy. They are not always friends. Do not be surprised that they do not always trust you (why should they?). What they are, are the ones who have done as best they could with the young man or young lady who is right now sitting in your class. What their child is going through living in a foreign nation, so are they. And now they have turned over to you their child so that you can serve in loco parentis. This responsibility should be terrifying. (But then, we chose our career did we not?) 

It needs to be said---it already has been said---that parents are a necessary part of our success as a teacher. There is little that they wish more than to have you realize this. They want to know what goes on in the classroom. They want to know when the next exam will be. They want to know how their child is doing in the subject. And they certainly want to know when their child has a problem. 

Some see this as intrusive; others as unnecessary; others as naïve. All are wrong. Why should parents simply forget about their own children for eight hours a day? 

So keep them involved. E-mail them weekly with classroom information on exams and quizzes. Invite them to your class. Return their calls and e-mails the same day. Simply put, parents are a superb resource on what is useful to know about your students: what helps them study, how they spend their free time, what are their likes and dislikes. The more you know the more you can tailor your lesson around specific issues and problems. This will make us better teachers---and better parents as well.


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